Director: Andy Muschietti
Runtime: 135 minutes float by, and you’ll float too, you’ll float too, you’ll float too, you’ll float too…
Stephen King must have a lot of money. My last review was for The Dark Tower, a fairly pedestrian action film that ticks the blockbuster boxes and goes home. It is more of a jack-in-the-box, and is one of the more well-known King horror stories, from the array of 70-whatever there are. It has been adapted to the screen before, which is an achievement for any writer. I’m not sure if King reaches uncharted territory when the remake of his adaption gets remade.
It tells the story of a bunch of children in 1989, who begin to suspect that their town is “cursed” by some sort of demonic presence, which seems to take the form of their worst fears. The most prominent of these being the form of a slightly demonic-looking clown named “Pennywise”. That is all I will say about the plot. It’s set in Derry, Maine – King’s favourite American state. Tucked away at the top right of the United States, Maine represents something “quiet” about American life, which becomes more shocking when it is perverted by the stories of King. Maine is to Stephen King as white-picket fence suburbia is to David Lynch.
The two strongest performances come from Jeremy Ray Taylor, as the adorably charming Ben, but specifically Sophia Lillis, who at 15 years of age, gives an incredibly nuanced turn as Beverly “Bev” Marsh. I expect she will contribute even better performances over her blossoming career. Jaeden Lieberher’s main lead has a stuttering problem that never feels too put on, and manages to remain a likable centre, which is hard for actors that young to do. I was shocked to discover that Bill Skarsgård, who played Pennywise the Dancing Clown, is only 27 years old. It’s somehow fitting, and he disappears into Pennywise agelessly, in a similar vein to how Heath Ledger disappears into The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). Ledger’s performance is a lot more fun, and is frankly meatier and surely to be considered more iconic, but what Skarsgård does here is successful.
Credit should go to director, Andy Muschietti for presumably helping to guide such uniformly good performances out of a young cast. A fun little connective game: Muschietti previously co-wrote the screenplay for his previous (and first) feature film, Mama (2013) with Neil Cross, who is the co-creator of Luther, which stars Idris Elba, who stars in the other Stephen King movie out now. It is quite heavy-handed with how it delivers its scares, but Muschietti technically handles it all very well, especially for a relatively inexperienced director.
Is It scary? Sure, if you’re not a big fan of clowns who are edited to look like they move unnaturally in stop-motion animation. Personally, the supernatural doesn’t frighten me, and I’ve never suffered from coulrophobia. Perhaps it’s because I always liked bright colours as a child, but maybe it is just because I am sympathetic to the plight of the clown. I am reminded of a story: A man goes to visit a doctor and says that he’s miserable, and no matter what, he cannot cheer up. The doctor advises that the great clown, Pagliacci, is in town tonight, and that he never fails to put a smile on faces. The man replies “But doctor…I am Pagliacci”.
The scariest element of the movie, for me, are the despicable adult characters. There are no fewer than three abusive parents, and it’s arguable that another two guardians are forcing their children to grow up in unhealthy ways. Buried beneath the supernatural stuff is a strong social message about how we treat children. And the most uncomfortable moment of the film is easily an encounter between Sophia Lillis’ Bev and an easily manipulated “Clark Kent”. Another interesting statement is made about race via the Mike character, who lost his family when a local hotspot for black locals was burnt down. Keep in mind we are just eight years removed from the real-life lynching of Michael Donald as the Mike character receives hateful threats from the local bullies, and the film makes the point of showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 on a cinema marquee in the background. People of colour are obviously confronted with too much racism today, but there’s something eerie about the time-framing of this Mississippi Burning (1988) level of overt racism.
It achieves, largely, what it sets out to achieve. You get your evil clown, you get your rag-tag group of kids who learn that facing their fears is important, and you get some musical cues to jump. The film does something quite effective, in that as the children begin to engage with the threat that faces them, the film itself becomes more engaging. I can’t honestly call it a great movie, but if you’re tossing up between which Stephen King to catch between It and The Dark Tower, make it It, and then go and admire your Idris Elba poster at home. He will keep you safe from Pennywise.